Zimbabwe shocked by 'No' votes

Opponents of longtime President Robert Mugabe won an unexpected victory on Feb. 15, when official ballot counts showed Zimbabweans had rejected a referendum to the Constitution to further consolidate the leader's two-decade rule.

Turnout was low, with just over 1.3 million citizens voting out of an eligible population of 5 million. The final tally was 55 percent for the "no" campaign and 45 percent for the "yes" vote.

"The 'No's' have it," said Tobaiwa Mudede, the chief elections officer of the Southern African nation.

The proposed changes to the Constitution would have allowed Mr. Mugabe - in power since he led Rhodesia to independence in 1980 - to retain most of his powers, despite calls for him to step down. The government also could have seized land owned by descendants of British settlers without compensation.

Analysts had overwhelmingly expected Mugabe to win the draft change, especially garnering support from the rural population, which constitutes 70 percent of Zimbabwe. Farmers and herders have very limited access to arable land, with the most fertile areas in control of white citizens.

The result was an indication of Mugabe's waning popularity as the nation faces its worst economic crisis since its liberation from British colonial rule. It could also be a bellwether for things to come in April's parliamentary elections - when the reformist Movement for Democratic Change threatens to usurp Mugabe's autocracy.

Raising fears of vote tampering, independent monitors said they could only reach two-thirds of polling stations. Mr. Mudede denied the allegations: "I think the results speak for themselves."

Under the referendum act Mugabe is not obliged to respect the outcome of the vote, but he promised beforehand that he would do so.

Government spokesman Jonathan Moyo said, "It's a political process, and it would be suicidal for anyone to ignore the result."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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